They say that January is the most depressing month of the year. The joys of Christmas presents, being half-cut by 2pm on a Monday because “it’s Christmas” and goodwill to all has evaporated.
Instead of being sat on the sofa in your pants and brand new cosy dressing gown watching Only Fools and Horses reruns with a cheeseboard and the last remnants of the posh biscuits for dinner; you’re sat in work listening to Lisa from accounts going on about how this will finally be her year and wondering to yourself if it was *really* a good idea to try and do Dry January.
There’s still half a bottle of whiskey in the cupboard that never got finished on New Year’s Eve. The January Blues they call it. A general feeling of melancholy as excess and rowdy nights out make way for early mornings and routine again. We all go through it, every year.
Well, except this year. Things are a bit different for me this year. The annual feeling of dread at going back to work after two weeks off was nowhere to be seen. Small talk about colleague’s big 2020 New Year New Me plans hasn’t been replied to via autopilot. Even tried some healthy food for dinner, last week. Why is this year different? Well, whisper it but there might be a red army revival going on down by the Riverside.
After a winter wonderland of four victories from five in the league and spirited, gutsy performances against strong Spurs sides in the FA Cup, the Boro sit 16th in the Championship with 34 points closer to the playoff places than the relegation zone.
That may not seem like anything to shout about from the outside looking in, but given that 12 games ago the club were 22nd with only 12 points and a relegation dogfight the only thing to look forward to, this is progress. Progress for a rookie manager buoyed by the emergence of fearless, flying youngsters and a team identity that was promised in the summer slowly beginning to take shape.
Six wins in ten league games is not to be sniffed at by anybody in the topsy-turvy, festival of freaks that is the Championship. Charlton led the way at the start of the season, Preston threatened the big spenders of Fulham, West Brom and Leeds for a while and Millwall are 8th. Millwall. You don’t get by on name value in the Championship.
The emergence of Djed Spence zipping down the right flank, laughing at all the old fellas trying to chase him down and sticking Wayne Rooney on his fat granny shagger arse, has given balance to Jonathan Woodgate’s side. Hayden Coulson can have a breather every so often now instead of resembling a Jack Russell on whizz for 90 minutes, hunting down wingers and busting a gut on the overlap.
Between them, they’ve pulled and dragged teams round the bend, sent them to the shops and back again, allowing Ashley Fletcher to take part in a game of Tap-With-Tav without being interrupted.
The quickfire link up play between Tav and Fletch in particular has given the side a much more dangerous, fluid and pretty sexy attack in recent weeks, which will only be helped by the arrival of Patrick Roberts. Looks a bit of alright, him.
Woody’s wingbacks have also helped to pin back teams from a defensive side of things. The much vaunted Boro Press has looked sharper, slicker and more effective since the introduction of Spence. Spurs fell foul to it on a couple of occasions at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (good name, lads) on Tuesday, with Spence slipping in Lukas Nmecha for a chance. West Brom were swamped in a 2-0 win for Boro, as dangerman Matheus Pereira was suffocated by the lack of space.
That lack of space was further exacerbated by Jonathan Woodgate’s decision to switch up a winning system to play Adam Clayton and George Saville as holding midfielders. Woody followed up that masterstroke with starting Rudy Gestede away to Preston. The crying laughing and clown emojis flooded in on Twitter when the team was announced.
Big Rudy went out, scored a goal and could’ve had 3 or 4, while bullying the Preston defence like the proverbial ginger stepchild as he finally acted like the battering ram that can be called upon to smash through tough defences. These tactical victories for Woody have boosted confidence in him to be the man to lead the new era of MFC.
The flying wingbacks, the one touch forward play, Lewis Wing scoring from 40 yards or 50 yard everywhere we go has all been backed up by a resolute defence that hasn’t shaken in the face of crisis.
In the space of a week, against more or less the best side that the Champions League runners up could put out, we lined up with two centre midfielders at the back and a 21 year old in goal whose only previous senior experience was in the National League and National League North at Gateshead and Darlington respectively. At the Riverside against Spurs one of them, Jonny Howson, was the best player on a pitch that included Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura and Toby Alderweireld
Prior to Dani Ayala’s injury, Jonny Howson was still deputising as the third piece of the centre half trio and proving again that he is the Championship’s answer to James Milner. Consistent, versatile. Jonny Howson is like pizza, it doesn’t where, what or why, he’s always good because he’s Jonny Howson.
Three league clean sheets in four games and seven overall since he filled in against Huddersfield has seen Aynsley Pears make the number one shirt his to lose in the wake of Darren Randolph’s return to West Ham. While he has been aided by a never say die defence that flings themselves in front of every ball to protect their young goalie, Pears has shown he’s capable of making big saves throughout his run in the team.
Despite news of the club looking to bring in a more experienced ‘keeper during the transfer window, here’s hoping that Pearsy is given every opportunity to retain his place in the team. He’s one of our own after all, the footage of him singing along with the travelling red army against West Brom and the double fist pumps after each win at the Riverside to the South Stand are nearly as endearing as him keeping clean sheets. Nearly.
The overriding factor in this upturn in form though? It’s something so simple that it’s almost daft to say, but they’re getting the basics right. Practice makes permanent and that’s why Woody and co. made such a big deal of having the footballs out early on in preseason. Players are now getting to grips with where everyone else will be on the pitch, knowing that a quick ball over the top will be picked up by Fletcher or they can slide a pass out to Coulson instead of giving it back to the defence.
There’s comfort in the simple things in life and it’s the same in football. There’s always been a clear plan in place but it’s taken time for the players to become comfortable with it, for it to become second nature. That’s what happens when you try and create a complete culture change at a football club. It takes time.
That’s not to say everything is golden, yet. This has been a rich vein of form but it’s not a guarantee that things have changed. The relegation zone isn’t as far away as some might want to make out and the playoffs aren’t as close either. As brilliant as the introduction of the young lads has been so far, they are going to dip eventually. All young players experience it due to a multitude of reasons.
Maybe they begin to believe their own hype, maybe a big mistake takes away a touch of their fearlessness, maybe they were just having a good couple of weeks and now they’ve hit the development wall. It can takes weeks, months, even a year but it happens. No game is a gimme in this league and things could easily flip to four defeats in the next five.
In those moments, it’s important for everyone to keep supporting them with the same enthusiasm as in recent weeks. Keep the momentum rolling on the terraces. Keep enjoying the ride and stoking the fires of this new era.
The boys in red have shown in all-action, impassioned displays against one of the countries best that they’re a team to be proud of. They’ve shown against the rest of the Championship that they might be a team to fear. Whatever this new era looks like for Middlesbrough Football Club, let’s do it together.
Photo Credits: MFC, Teesside Live